Congressman Tim Ryan: From Political Obscurity To Rustbelt Renegade

A year ago, U.S. Representative Tim Ryan (D-OH) was an obscure backbencher Congressman. He has since become a national figure, first for his consideration by Democratic Presidential nominee Hillary Clinton for her Vice Presidential runningmate, and second for his role in unsuccessfully challenging House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) in her bid for re-election to that post.

Tim Ryan is in an opportune position to move up the political ladder. Donald Trump won the Presidency in part by siphoning off from the Democrats a significant number of blue-collar voters, like the ones in Ohio's 13th Congressional District, who split their tickets, overwhelmingly re-electing Ryan, while selecting Trump for President.

Voters in Ryan's northern Ohio Congressional District have come to see the national Democratic Party as a coterie of cosmopolitan sophisticates who ignore voters in the nation's hinterlands.

In almost every campaign, Republican candidates in Middle America try to tether their Democratic opponent to national Democratic leaders from the coast. Pelosi is a convenient target because she hails from San Francisco. The Republicans often vilify the City-By-The-Bay for its reputation for libertine values.

In 1984, Democrats made the mistake of holding their national convention in San Francisco. U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Jeanne Kirkpatrick exploited that fact in her address to the Republican National Convention by calling for Americans to "reject the San Francisco Democrats."

By mounting a formidable challenge to Pelosi, Ryan has established himself as the counterweight to Pelosi. He is now nationally known as a tribune and representative of blue-collar Democrats from the heartland who tried to oust Pelosi.

After Ryan lost to Pelosi, Donald Trump's former campaign manager, Kallyannne Conway, tweeted: "What a relief. I was worried they [Democrats] had learned from the elections & might be competitive and cohesive again." Ryan could use that statement in his political future to show that Republicans view him as the antithesis of Pelosi.

Ryan could very well use his newly minted national profile in many ways. He could start a PAC with a moniker like "Returning the Democratic Party to the People." This would allow him to spend the next few years barnstorming the country campaigning for Congressional candidates in areas hostile to the National Democratic Party.

By doing so, Ryan would collect chits, keep his reputation as the dissident Democrat with a blue-color vision, and he would have the opportunity to meet prominent Democratic donors. He could then run for the 2020 Democratic Presidential nomination. He could run on a similar platform as U.S. Representative Dick Gephardt (D-MO) did in 1988 by focusing on bread and butter economic issues, highlighting economic nationalism, which has been a hallmark of his congressional tenure.

Economic Nationalism had been associated with the Democratic Party, but Trump co-opted it by pledging to renegotiate NAFTA, by opposing the Transpacific Partnership, and by calling for a 25% tariff to be leveled on Chinese goods exported to the U.S.

Ryan recently changed his position on abortion rights, now defining himself as "prochoice." This was a dexterous political move. The abortion issue is a litmus test for many Democrats and potential benefactors. The fact that he previously defined himself as "prolife" will likely prove inconsequential. The party has nominated Bill Clinton and Al Gore, both had changed their positions on abortion, and Jesse Jackson and Dick Gephardt ran formidable races, having been converts to the cause of abortion rights.

Democrats will be looking for a candidate from the nation's interior who could convince blue-collar voters in the General Election that the Democratic Party is their natural home. They will also be looking for a young charismatic leader. Ryan is only 43 years old. He also comes from Ohio, and no Republican has ever won the Presidency without carrying the buckeye state.

Ryan could mount a Presidential bid styling himself as the "Rustbelt Renegade" or the "Rustbelt rebel," arguing that he stood up to an out-of-touch party establishment, which was tone-deaf to Trump's appeal. Ryan could make the case that he would bring rustbelt voters back into the Democratic fold in the General Election and win the Presidency. He also might garner endorsements from labor organizations in the primary for his fidelity to their agenda.

Ryan could use U.S. Representative Morris "Mo" Udall (D-AZ) as an archetype. Udall ran against the entrenched House Speaker John McCormick (D-MA) in 1969, losing, and against Majority Leader Hale Boggs (D-LA) in 1971.

In 1976, Udall launched a Presidential campaign as the candidate of "courage, candor, and reform" and highlighted his work in the House against "the seniority system." Udall finished second for the Democratic nomination behind former Georgia Governor Jimmy Carter.

It is unlikely that the Democrats will pick up the House in 2018 because partisan gerrymandering has made for very few swing districts. Ryan could challenge Pelosi again, and a disaffected caucus might vote for him on the secret ballot. Ryan could argue that the party needs a transmogrification in House leadership, having controlled the body only twice since 1995. If Pelosi retires, Ryan would likely be challenged by Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer (D-MD.) Ryan could make the same argument about the long-time Whip as he would make about Pelosi.

Another option would be for Ryan to seek the coveted Ohio Governorship in 2018. By challenging Pelosi, Ryan has inoculated himself from the traditional charge that Republicans would make, that Ryan is an elitist who was a foot soldier for Pelosi. Ryan can now respond that not only was he independent from her, but he even challenged her for the House Minority Leadership.

Should Ryan be elected as Governor, he would likely be on the shortlist for the Democratic Vice Presidential nomination in 2020. He could use that position as a springboard to a Presidential bid as well. Ohio is one of the most important showdown states. No Republican has ever been elected to the Presidency without carrying Ohio. The Democrats would be wise to at least consider that state's Governor, assuming he can maintain a job approval rating of over 50%.

The failed House leadership run by Ryan was a political masterstroke. Last year, Ryan was a backbench Congressman who was unlikely to develop a national following in the party due to his opposition to abortion rights. Now he is a supporter of abortion rights and has become the voice of blue-collar voters, the ones Trump finessed from the Democratic Party to win the Presidency.